The Dangers of Mental Health Challenges for Nonprofit Senior Staff
Nonprofit boards of directors, made up of volunteer members who can lack skills in managing professional nonprofit senior staff who report to them, can pose a serious threat to the mental health and potential for burnout of these employees. It has not only been shown in multiple studies that bear out this claim, but in my own on-the-ground experience as a coach to nonprofit leaders. COVID-19 makes the situation much worse.
For example, I coached the executive director of a mid-sized nonprofit who experienced strong pressure from several newly elected members of the organization’s board of directors over fundraising goals. The executive director experienced growing anxiety and stress over this pressure, eventually going to therapy and taking medications.
While I strongly urged him to reveal his mental health condition to the board, he refused to do so. He expressed high confidence that the board wouldn’t support him. The executive director shared with me a number of instances when he saw senior staff in other situations hide their mental health challenges due to fears about problematic reactions by board members.
He even told me he thought they might fire him on the spot if he revealed his weakness. As someone struggling with anxiety myself, I empathize with his concerns, but thought he was taking it too far. His fears fit with his broader pessimism bias, an excessive perception of potential threats common for those with anxiety or depression.
His pessimism did not serve him well. The board continued to pressure him. Despite his wise decision to seek professional help, his anxiety and stress undercut his fundraising capacity.
Pretty soon, the executive director was close to burnout. At that point — when he told me he considered quitting — I finally convinced him to reveal his condition to the board, by asking him what he had to lose if he did reveal his mental health status.
Well, guess what? The board expressed a great deal of support. Several of the new board members who pressured him did so because they felt anxious themselves over the state of the organization's finances. These board members suffered from pessimism themselves, taking it out on the executive director, pushing him to his breaking point. The board agreed to step back from its fundraising goals and do some cost-cutting instead.
The story did not have a happy ending. The cost-cutting led to layoffs that undermined staff morale, who expressed their discontent to the executive director. He was already close to burnout, and the anxiety and stress from these and other conflicts — which he previously could have handled easily — helped push him over the edge.
He turned in his resignation letter and left the nonprofit sector due to burnout. The nonprofit launched a long and expensive year-long search for a new executive director, who did not work out very well, leading to many supporters abandoning the nonprofit.
Part of the blame lies with me: Looking back, I believe I could have done a better job supporting my coaching client in sharing his mental health challenges with the board. The whole fiasco could have been prevented with a timelier revelation. Earlier cost-cutting would have resulted in less drastic layoffs. The executive director would have had more mental resources and would have handled the blow to staff morale from these cuts. He would have continued to lead the organization, which would have continued to do well.
I share this story, for which I acknowledge a degree of blame, with the hope that you as nonprofit leaders will take it to heart and influence your key stakeholders, especially those without professional nonprofit training, to be more aware of and attentive to mental health. The executive director I coached is one of many terrific senior nonprofit staff pushed to and past their breaking point by members of their boards or by demanding major donors.
In an increasingly disrupted and uncertain future, which will only breed more stress and anxiety, we cannot afford to lose such talented nonprofit leaders by failing to pay attention to the dangers of mental health challenges. Nonprofit leaders — staff and volunteers alike — need to encourage and model transparency around mental wellness, as well as training in how to spot and support colleagues in times of trouble.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing, decision making and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work for nonprofit executives. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking nonprofit leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.
As an author, he has written “The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships,” "Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic" and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”
His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking and training on future-proofing, strategic decision-making and planning, and cognitive bias risk management. His clients include innovative startups, major nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral scientist, studying decision-making and risk management strategy over a 15-year span in academia. After getting a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed as a professor at The Ohio State University, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.